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The Most Basic of Rights

The global fight to make water a human right is part of the broader struggle against neoliberalism.

A Roma boy pumps water in Budapest, Hungary in September 2014. Laszlo Balogh / Reuters

On August 2, United Nations member states signed off on the Post-2015 Development Agenda — a document two years in the making that will determine the shape of international development for the next fifteen. The agenda is comprised of seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that will replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), launched in 2000 with the goal of eradicating world poverty.

While they’ve received plenty of spin, the MDGs — which set numerical targets for states to reduce various indicators of poverty such as homelessness, child mortality, and lack of access to basic services — ultimately failed in many areas.

The MDG calling for the reduction of slum populations is illustrative: instead of spurring an increase in decent housing for the poor, in some countries this nebulous goal led to the criminalization and forced eviction of slum dwellers. States could meet their targets simply by showing quantitative improvements rather than qualitatively improving the lives of people living in poverty.

The SDGs, with their focus on sustainability, are said to be more comprehensive than the MDGs because they include environmental, social, and economic considerations, and unlike traditional development programs targeting the Global South, are meant to be applied universally.

Proponents also tout the SDG deliberation process as more inclusive than the MDG process. For two years broad sections of civil society were consulted through formal processes that lumped together impacted communities (women, youth, indigenous people) with various interest groups and corporate lobbyists.

The result was a depoliticized cacophony of conflicting views: the business community, like the fertilizer industry and big agriculture, drowned out the voices of small farmers, while big mainstream NGOs claiming to promote the interests of children countered the feminist discourse of women’s groups.

And though civil society actors had limited communication channels during the formal negotiation process, the secretary general, working outside that process, consulted with companies like Unilever — a corporation fêted for sustainability despite charges that it illegally dumped mass quantities of mercury near its operations in Kodaikanal, India.

Then as political horse-trading heated up in the final days of negotiation, activists who had consulted and lobbied for years took a back seat to member states, who flexed their political muscles and exercised their diplomatic prowess to secure last-minute gains.

The backroom deals in those final days contained substantial concessions. As the Third World Network points out, progressive language on debt restructuring was revised to lay blame on borrowing countries, and according to the Women’s Major Group, last-minute changes weakened language concerning access and benefit-sharing of genetic material. Moreover — as numerous social movements around the world have noted — the final documents emphasize economic growth to the detriment of everything else.

There was one significant win, however. At the tail end of the negotiating process, a very powerful member state (one might even say a super-powerful one) tried to remove language codifying water and sanitation as human rights. But the persistence of water justice activists paid off, and the official SDG document states: “we reaffirm our commitments regarding the human right to water and sanitation.”

In the international development context, poverty reduction plans often deliver the opposite: as a rule, global and regional development plans have been wealth-generation schemes for elites, and many debt-ridden Southern economies are still suffering the impacts of structural adjustment plans packaged as poverty amelioration programs.

Whether the SDGs will be the latest ignominious example remains to be seen. But acknowledgement of the human right to water and sanitation may be a positive contradiction, awkwardly embedded in the Post-2015 Development Agenda — and capable of being expanded in the future.

A Tool of Resistance

Despite the disappointing reality of the SDG process, for nearly two years the Blue Planet Project participated in civil society consultations, made formal submissions, and lobbied member states and like-minded organizations in the fight to make water and sanitation a global human right.

The Blue Planet Project never assumed that the UN would produce a development agenda that would eliminate inequality. The campaign was part of a broader strategy to use the right as a tool against neoliberalism — a tool not simply to make the system more bearable for its victims but to directly challenge some of the largest, most insidious neoliberal projects by demanding redistribution, thwarting corporate efforts to profiteer from basic needs, and preventing private encroachments on common resources.

With freshwater access declining worldwide, water and sanitation services are increasingly becoming an opportunity for wealth accumulation. Around the world, private water corporations focused on maintaining their rates of return have raised tariffs unsustainably, shut off water to lower-income households, and circumvented quality and environmental standards. Privatization has also meant less transparency and public accountability.

Although official UN sources claim neutrality on whether water and sanitation provision should be privately or publicly provided, grassroots activists have successfully used such provisions to stop corporations from taking over community water supplies, prevent the privatization of drinking water and sanitation services, restrict corporate abuse of freshwater resources, and establish the freshwater rights of people and the needs of the planet above corporate needs.

Just to name several specific examples: over the past decade, in Uruguay, Ecuador, and Bolivia, movements have won constitutional recognition of the human right to water and sanitation that resulted in the banning of private water and sanitation services.

Since 2005 — in Latin and North America, Europe, Africa, and Asia235 municipalities have taken water back into public hands. Municipalities like Paris, which refused to renew contracts with the French transnational corporations Veolia and Suez, decided to put an end to rising costs and poor accountability by restoring public ownership and control in 2008. The move brought savings of €35 million for the city within the first year, as well as lower water rates.

In Botswana, indigenous groups won a case in 2011 affirming their right to access traditional water sources on the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and blocking the state’s attempts to relocate them in order to make room for private ecotourism and extractive industries.

In 2014, the UN’s special rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation called on states to adopt human rights standards within the SDGs to ensure that the water needs of people were prioritized over industrial consumption, pointing to tensions between growing energy production and the human right to water and sanitation.

In February of this year, a decade-long struggle against a World Bank–imposed water law came to an end when the Indonesian constitutional court affirmed in a landmark ruling that the policy contradicted the country’s constitutional recognition of water as a human right and a common good. (The 2004 law was a condition for a World Bank loan aimed at facilitating the privatization of water and sanitation services as well greater access to freshwater supplies by foreign multinationals like Danone.)

Earlier this year, public outcry in Mexico prevented the legislature from voting on a business-backed bill that would have made water resources more easily obtainable for industrial users, particular in the extractive sector. Activists argued the legislation would violate the country’s 2012 constitutional recognition of the human right to water by prioritizing the water needs of private industries over people and the environment.

And finally, last month, after a multi-year petition campaign by water justice advocates obtained over 1.8 million signatures throughout Europe, the European Parliament called on the European Commission to draft human-right-to-water legislation that excludes water services from EU liberalization directives.

These are but a few of the growing list of cases where activists are using the human right to water and sanitation as a tool to reclaim the freshwater commons from corporate encroachment.

A Tepid Concession?

Despite these victories, some on the Left question the wisdom of the right-to-water strategy, seeing it as yielding ruling-elite compromises that don’t fundamentally challenge the system.

But given the increasing corporate interest in commodifying water, cordoning off the resource as a human right could serve as a beachhead from which to fight additional neoliberal encroachments.

The push to privatize water and sanitation is growing as private industry seeks new entry points for market expansion within a context of financial crisis and austerity. With 90 percent of the sector still in public hands, investments in water and sanitation offer new chances for capital accumulation as traditional sources dry up.

Water activist Maude Barlow notes that most banks now have investment funds targeting water, and even public pension funds are putting money into water and sanitation services. Citigroup chief economist William Buiter says water is becoming the “most important physical-commodity-based asset class,” and the profitability of water has only increased in the wake of the financial crisis — water is now considered one of the “safer asset classes.” This is particularly salient at a time when investment treaties are enabling corporations to sue governments when public policy is deemed to be interfering with profits (including those in the future).

In this context, corporations in pursuit of new privatization ventures see the development agenda as a prime opportunity to counter global trends to reclaim water and sanitation services.

For example, the corporate-funded UK aid agency WaterAid is already calling on governments to meet SDG targets on water and sanitation by creating “enabling environments” for private-sector participation. (Along with funding from coal mining corporations accused of polluting water and displacing communities, WaterAid receives funding from Unilever and is emphasizing the importance of hand-washing stations with soap as an indicator for SDG targets on hygiene.)

The relentless drive to privatize water demands resistance not only at the grassroots, but also at the global level — where policy decision-making processes are being dominated by corporations and the NGOs that cheerlead for them.

Laws that uphold a human right to water and sanitation are thus a direct threat to corporations (particularly in the extractive, agricultural, and beverage sector), who have been using national and global policy to secure increased access to freshwater resources, particularly in the Global South.

Challenging Corporate-Friendly Development

Securing the human rights language in the SDGs was a major victory for water justice activists, but the war over water looms. Water access permeates the Post-2015 Development Agenda, impacting a wide variety of goals including food, energy production, gender equality, poverty reduction, and sustainable cities.

Framing access to water within a human-rights-based paradigm can help ensure that the desires of extractive industries or beverage companies are not prioritized over human and environmental needs. This is particularly important given the primacy of economic growth within the SDGs and the call in Sustainable Development Goal 7 to expand the supply of modern energy in developing countries — both of which are at odds with efforts to stop the spread of fracking and big dam development projects (which have been detrimental to watersheds).

There are still many unanswered questions about how the SDGs will be implemented, as well as whether the human right to water will be sufficiently “contradictory” — whether, in other words, it can help undercut the Post-2015 Development Agenda’s emphasis on economic growth and private-sector participation.

But at the very least, we can draw on these examples of activism. If the human right to water and sanitation does nothing more than deepen the cracks in the neoliberal system by holding states accountable for their obligations, then perhaps those cracks will open up new spaces for resistance — spaces where we can plant the seeds for a more just future.